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The clumsy effort to criticize Biden on Ukraine using Keystone

An oil drilling rig operated by Ukrnafta in Boryslav, in western Ukraine, in 2019. (Vincent Mundy/Bloomberg News)

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been a number of lines of argument aimed at criticizing President Biden for purportedly making the attack possible or inevitable. There have also been arguments that Biden’s decisions made the United States’ position worse, perhaps the foremost of which centers on one of his first moves as president.

On Jan. 21, 2021, Biden canceled the Keystone XL pipeline project, an expansion of an existing conduit for tar-sands oil from Canada to the central United States. The pipeline had been a focus of activism for years, with Barack Obama first rejecting and Donald Trump later approving its construction. For a variety of reasons, which we’ll get into in a second, Biden placed the final nail, meaning that the proposal aimed at increasing the amount of product brought into the country by pipeline would not become reality.

The argument, then, goes like this: Had Biden not canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, we could have offset the oil that is imported from Russia, giving us more flexibility in imposing sanctions on that country.

This is not a strong argument.

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Before I explain why, it’s important to understand how the American energy industry has changed in the past decade and where American crude oil comes from. Using data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), we can visualize the change in imported and domestically produced oil over time. Most of the crude oil we import these days already comes from Canada; very little comes from Russia.

But notice the big surge in domestic production. That’s largely a function of improvement in hydraulic fracturing — fracking — that allowed oil to be better extracted from shale formations. It led to a surge in new production in places such as Texas, Oklahoma, Montana and North Dakota. And it reduced the need for imported crude oil.

The United States was exporting almost no crude oil about two decades ago. Now, thanks in part to that increase in production, we export one barrel for every two we import.

While we tend to think of oil in terms of big barrels of black sludge, the actual trade of oil and petroleum products is much more diverse than that. The EIA tracks crude production and trade as only part of the broader industry that includes refined products (such as gasoline) and other types of hydrocarbon liquids. If we include all of those products, Russia makes up a bit more of the mix — but still not much. It has increased since 2019.

That background is important for a few reasons.

First, the Keystone XL pipeline was first proposed in 2008, before the big surge in domestic production. It was meant to expand the flow from Alberta to Steele City, Neb., but the full route from Alberta to the Gulf Coast has been completed. The issue was not whether oil from Alberta should come into the United States at all but how much. Even without XL, some of what isn’t transported by the existing pipeline is shipped by rail — undercutting the argument from Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) about what’s being excluded from the marketplace.

Second, imports of crude oil from Canada have doubled since the beginning of 2008 — even without the expanded pipeline. Imports of crude oil and other products have increased by 80 percent.

Third, not all of the oil flowing into the United States was going to be refined and sold here. Much of the oil from Alberta was intended to go to the Gulf Coast, where there’s a lot of refining capacity. But part of the plan was also to then ship refined oil out of the country through the Gulf of Mexico. (About two-thirds of refined products on the Gulf Coast are exported.) In 2017, the Trump State Department stated that approving Keystone XL would have only a “minimal” effect on the price of refined petroleum products — meaning primarily gasoline — since gas prices are largely driven by “global market factors.”

Fourth, what is extracted in Alberta is tar-sands oil, a particularly heavy oil product. That is not what’s being imported from Russia, so it’s not a one-to-one replacement.

Fifth, there are significant environmental concerns about that particular type of oil. Environmentalists opposed the expansion because tar-sands oil is more carbon-intensive to refine and because it meant building new infrastructure that would facilitate the eventual combustion of the oil. Obama’s initial rejection of the pipeline centered on environmental concerns. When Trump approved it, his plan was quickly halted by the courts, which criticized the administration for ignoring the effects on climate change. It’s not simply a question of “build and get more oil”; it’s also a question of “build and get more oil and exacerbate global warming.”

That’s the false choice presented by Crenshaw and others. Instead of replacing the energy-generating capacity that is provided by Russian oil (not all of which goes to energy production, of course), why not replace the equivalent amount with non-fossil-fuel-based sources, instead of just Canadian oil? At his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Biden is expected to advocate once again for reducing U.S. emissions, a plan that could reduce the use of oil for electricity generation or for vehicles. Eliminating reliance on Russian oil would be good, but doing so by relying on oil from some other country is not the best path forward.

An interesting side note to all of this is that Ukraine’s allies, including the United States, decided against imposing sanctions on Russia’s oil industry anyway, worried about the sorts of global market factors that could cause gas prices to spike. There have not been many calls from Biden’s opponents to trigger gas-price increases as a way of inflicting more pain on Russia, largely because the point of the Keystone XL comparison isn’t to hurt Russia in the first place.

The point is to hurt Biden.